WASHINGTON, D.C.—On July 23, a U.S. military surveillance plane crashed in Colombia with five U.S. soldiers and two Colombians aboard, revealing Washington's growing involvement in that country's bitter and long-running civil war. The breakdown of peace talks between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government of Andrés Pastrana scheduled for this past July has led to mounting calls for greater U.S. involvement in Colombia from hard-liners within the Colombian military as well as within the U.S. government and military establishment. [See "Clouds Over Colombia," p. 6.] Today some 240 U.S. personnel are based in Colombia, involved mainly in counternarcotics operations, though military aid for these efforts is increasingly indistinguishable from counterinsurgency assistance.
In mid-July, Drug Czar and former SOUTHCOM commander Barry McCaffrey called for Washington to send $1 billion in emergency counternarcotics assistance to the Andean region, with most going to Colombia. This is in addition to the $289 million approved last October for counterdrug efforts in Colombia, which tripled the previous year's aid package and made Colombia the largest recipient of U.S. military aid after Israel and Egypt. The U.S. government began sharing high-tech intelligence directly with the Colombian armed forces last March. It has built radar and electronic surveillance stations in Colombia staffed by U.S. personnel, and U.S. special forces are training a new army counter- narcotics battalion of 1,000 elite Colombian soldiers.
Rumors of Pentagon plans for a multinational intervention force for Colombia are not new. [See, for example, NACLA Report, "Multilateral Invasion Force for Colombia?" May/June 1998.] In recent weeks the Argentine press has reported new U.S. efforts to sound out Latin American governments about forming an intervention force, reports denied by U.S. officials. Latin Americans were alarmed when President Clinton said in July that Colombia was a U.S. national security interest and McCaffrey said that Colombia faced an "internal threat"—language that has often signaled imminent intervention in the past. The Buenos Aires daily Clarín reported on July 23 that SOUTHCOM enthusiastically supported the idea of a regional intervention force for Colombia since a U.S. force was politically untenable. In the most recent meeting of the Organization of American States (OAS) in Guatemala in early June, Washington proposed a "defense of democracy" resolution that called for the creation of a "Group of Friends" as a multinational force that could intervene in the region if democracy were threatened—a resolution defeated by wary Latin American delegates.
Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso emphatically rejected the possibility of participating in a military intervention force in Colombia, as did the Argentine Minister of Defense. Peru and Venezuela also condemned any foreign invasion force. Pastrana responded emphatically to the proposal, saying, "as long as I am President of Colombia, I will never accept nor permit the intervention of other countries in the internal problems of our nation." Pastrana also repudiated the "narcoguerrilla" thesis promoted by U.S. officials and denied that Colombia was a regional threat.
In a surprise announcement, however, President Carlos Menem of Argentina said that "if Colombia requested it" Argentina would indeed form part of an intervention force "to brake the advance of subversion." Menem said that it would be "inappropriate for the United States to unilaterally assume this responsibility." After an uproar ensued in Argentina, Menem claimed he was "misinterpreted."
On July 29 Clarín published a report from Angel Páez in Lima about a secret CIA plan to intervene in Colombia from staging areas in Ecuador and Peru with assistance from the militaries in those countries. Páez's sources were military officers familiar with a June briefing given by shadowy Peruvian intelligence chief Vladimiro Montesinos in a meeting of joint armed forces commanders. These sources said that according to Montesinos, who has had links to the CIA since the 1970s, Fujimori's order to send troops to the border with Colombia in April was suggested by the CIA. Ecuador's Minister of Defense ordered a similar militarization of the border in July, during a visit to Quito by McCaffrey.
In early August, Inter-Press Service reported that a contingent of SOUTHCOM's Special Operations Forces was stationed in Ecuador and Peru, along the border with Colombia. Also in early August hard-line Republicans in Congress attacked the Clinton Administration in alarmist language for not doing enough to aid the Colombian military. The coming weeks are likely to be critical in terms of U.S. strategy in the region.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
J. Patrice McSherry is an associate professor of political science at Long Island University and author of Incomplete Transition: Military Power and Democracy in Argentina (St. Martin's Press, 1997). She is also a member of NACLA's editorial board.